It was a cool and rainy fall evening on a recent trip to the Twin Cities and I was in a food funk. I get that way from time to time when nothing really sounds all that good to me. A lot of times when I get in these types of funk, I usually turn to Asian food. I hadn't had Thai food for quite sometime and I saw that there was a Thai restaurant - Sawatdee Thai Restaurant - the wasn't far from my hotel in Bloomington. I ended up going there for dinner that evening.
Sawatdee Thai Restaurant is actually a small chain of restaurants owned by Thai native Supenn Harrison. Born in Thailand in the late 1940's, Supenn was a biology teacher in Thailand in the late 60's and early 70's. She came to Minnesota in 1972 as a foreign student at the University of Minnesota studying for her Masters of Arts in Education. Supenn's plan after college was to get as far away from Minnesota as possible. That is, until she fell in love with fellow Minnesota student - and Iowa native - Bruce Harrison. They were married and eventually raised two daughters, Jenny and Cynthia.
After Supenn graduated from Minnesota in 1974, Bruce and she went back to live in her native Thailand. It didn't take long to see that the job market was tight and they ended up moving back to Minnesota. There, she worked as a surgical equipment technician at a local hospital. From time to time, she would make her native Thai food and bring it in to work for her co-workers to share. They especially liked her egg rolls and one of her co-workers suggested she look into having a booth at the Minnesota State Fair. She secured booth space in 1976 and Supenn's egg rolls were an instant hit with fair goers.
She continued to do temp work and teach here and there - as well as working the booth at the state fair - for three years before a small cafe became available to purchase. The Harrison's bought the Gopher Grill in Minneapolis' Uptown area in 1979. It was your typical greasy spoon - burgers, breakfast, comfort food - and it didn't take long for Supenn to figure out that in order to make money at the restaurant, she had to change some things.
Pictured right - Supenn Harrison. Picture courtesy Andrew Zimmern.com
Coming to the realization that the Twin Cities was void of any Thai food restaurants, Supenn replaced the flat grill and deep fryers with woks. She changed the name to the Siam Cafe and she introduced Thai food to thousands of people in the area. When they were told what they were eating, many patrons thought that Thai food was from Taiwan.
The Siam Cafe was a huge hit and Supenn began to realize that she had an opening to turn her passion for cooking Thai food into something much larger. In 1983, the Harrison's sold the Siam Cafe for a healthy profit and looked toward St. Paul to start their next venture. They found space in what was a former warehouse that was being turned into a retail and condominium location and opened the first Sawatdee restaurant later that year. The Thai term for "hello" is "sawasdee", but it's pronounced "sawatdee", so they went with the phonetical spelling of the word for their restaurant.
Food critics and patrons were all in agreement that the flavors served at Sawatdee were exquisite and unique. The Minneapolis Star Tribune food critic gave Supenn Harrison's restaurant 4 stars and it became a destination for many diners around the Twin Cities. In 1986, Supenn sold the restaurant to her sister and she opened a second Sawatdee on Washington Ave. in Minneapolis in April. This space, too, was located in what was formerly a warehouse that had been renovated. Suddenly, loyal diners from Minneapolis didn't have to venture over to St. Paul to get some of Supenn's wonderful food.
In 1990, Supenn opened a third Sawatdee in Bloomington, a fourth Sawatdee - more of a bar and cafe - was opened in 1994 in the Minneapolis Warehouse District, not far from the present day Target Field and the Target Center. More Sawatdee restaurants were opened - either owned by Supenn or franchised by her - and today there are a total of five Sawatdee Thai restaurants in the Twin Cities and another one up in St. Cloud.
The Sawatdee in Bloomington is located in a strip mall on the east side of Lyndale Ave. at 85th Street. (see map) I was able to park in front of the place and went in to the restaurant. I was greeted by a young girl - who also turned out to be my server - by the name of Daija. She was a pleasant girl and very friendly in a laid back kind of way.
The restaurant is pretty basic with the kitchen in the back part of the restaurant, some booths along the walls and tables in the middle. She took me to a booth near the front window. There were a handful of Asian people eating in the restaurant that evening - a good sign that the food is most probably authentic Thai food. She gave me a menu to look through.
They don't serve beer at Sawatdee, so I was just going to have water with my meal that evening. Prices weren't terribly out of line, either. I usually just go with beef and broccoli when I go to a Thai restaurant - pretty unspectacular, I know. Actually, they had some things on the menu that I'm not certain I've ever seen at a Thai restaurant. They had something called Tod Gratium Prig Thai - stir fried meat (your choice of beef, chicken, pork or shrimp) seasoned with garlic and black pepper. I almost got that. They also had a ginger stir fry with either chicken or pork and it came with sliced fresh ginger, Chinese mushrooms, chopped onions and chopped celery. That sounded pretty interesting, as well. They also had beef in an oyster sauce with broccoli and green peppers. That was pretty close to my old stand-by of beef and broccoli.
And that's what I ordered from Daija. She asked me what temperature as far as spiciness that I wanted my food. They had six different levels - a mild with no spice, a mild with spice, a mild-to-medium, a medium, a medium-to-hot, and a hot. I ordered up the beef and broccoli with the medium sauce. She said, "Uh, that's pretty spicy. Will you be all right with that?" I told her that I would. I couldn't imagine a "medium" being all that hot.
She brought my food out and I took a bite. Well, she wasn't kidding about the level of spiciness. Medium WAS hot! It wasn't "burn-your-face-off" hot, but it was spicy enough to get my attention. The beef in the oyster sauce was very good - tender and flavorful. The broccoli and green peppers still had a "snap" when I would bite into them. I usually don't like cooked green peppers as they have a tendency to talk back to me later on. But these were very fresh and it was almost like they were quickly heated up in a wok and served that way. Piling the beef, green peppers and broccoli on to a small bed of steamed rice was an Asian comfort meal in the making. I had no problem finishing all of the beef, broccoli and green peppers. The oyster sauce was so good that I wanted to tip up the plate and drink it down. Had I been home alone, I would have done it.
The meal I had at Sawatdee was a definite "spot-hitter". After being in a food funk for a couple days, Thai food always seems to help break me out of that mindset and the food at Sawatdee was some of the best Thai food that I've ever had. Not that I'm an expert on Thai food - far from it. But I know what I like and the beef with broccoli and green peppers in an oyster sauce was very tasty. The service I received from Daija was friendly, prompt and informative. And believe me, if they say medium is sort of spicy at Sawatdee, they really mean it! But the overall value of the meal was the big thing. I got a lot of food for $11.95 plus tax plus tip. Sawatdee was a great find for Thai food in the Twin Cities.